When returning to a relationship that has been hurt by your sin it is crucial that you do so in a correct manner. There is much more to it than just saying, “I’m sorry” to those you have disappointed and wronged. Ignoring what happened in the past and hoping it will go away will not work either.
The Bible gives four keys to returning to those you have hurt – whether it is at home, work, or in a friendship. All of these are found in the response of the prodigal son to his father in Luke 15:11-21. (I would encourage you to read the passage; it’s not lengthy).
The first essential is to confess your sin. This is opposite of our natural inclination to justify ourselves and shift some of the blame. The young man took full responsibility for how he had hurt his father (:18-19). He was so broken that he thought out carefully the precise wording of his confession and rehearsed it.
It’s hard to say, “I was wrong; I have sinned”. In fact, it’s so tough that many never say it to God or to anyone else. As long as you blame someone else you will never admit to your sin.
A true confession doesn’t justify or rationalize behavior. The son didn’t blame his father, circumstances, or anyone else. He put it all square on himself.
If you want to reestablish a broken relationship accept full responsibility for your part in the breach. Don’t blame the other person, not at all. Even if they had a part in the breaking of your relationship focus on your part of the problem. Confess it without expecting or requiring the other person to confess. Repentance is when you want to be right no matter what the other person does or how they respond.
What is the evidence that a person has truly accepted personal responsibility and is no longer bitter or blaming another? There will be a spirit of humility in them. There was a huge difference in his attitude when he left and when he returned. When he left home he told his father “give me” my inheritance (:12); when he returned he was broken and said “make me” one of your servants (:19).
No longer was he demanding his rights, but was now willing to take the lowest place. A genuine confession comes from a heart that is broken over their sin. Repentance always begins in the heart and is later evidenced in one’s behavior, speech, and attitude. It is easy to fake your actions and words, but it is tough to fake a humble attitude.
A second key to restoring a broken relationship is not to have expectations. The son put no conditions on his father, how could he after the way he had treated him? He told his dad that I “am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (:19). He let God handle the situation even though he didn’t know the outcome
Expectations destroys relationships and gratitude. The moment you put expectations on a person to respond a certain way, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. No one can fully satisfy your expectations but the Lord.
“My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him.” (Psalm 62:5)
Repentance is when I care more for my part in the issue without having any expectation of the other party.
A third key to restoring a broken relationship is to be willing to serve in the lowest place. The son said to his father, “..make me as one of thy hired servants” (:19).
Only a humble person will serve one with whom he has had conflicts with in the past. This type of serving isn’t compensating for past hurts to try and “balance the scales”, but rather a genuine desire to bless and help the other person you have hurt.
A fourth key to coming home is to anticipate some misunderstanding. His older brother wasn’t as gracious as his father (:25-32). Don’t require everyone to understand and accept you immediately. Sure, it will sting and hurt, but maintain a spirit of humility and genuine service and allow God to work.
If you require them to accept you on your terms, then it isn’t repentance. The offended sets the terms of reconciliation, not the offender.
I fully realize that I am writing to some that have tried this and have never sensed the release of forgiveness from the person you have hurt. However, remember the issue is what part you have to play. Realize that you have caused hurt and pain and allow God to cultivate patience as you humble yourself before the Lord and the person who is angry with you.
In the story the father is eager and ready to forgive and restore (:20-21), but the repentant son didn’t know what kind of reception he would receive. He had nowhere else to go, was starving, and also faced the risk of rejection from his family.
Perhaps you have done this and it didn’t work out like it did in the story. Rather than acceptance there was rejection and hostility in spite of your brokenness and humility.
May I encourage you to maintain a spirit of humility and allow God to work on the hearts of those to whom you want to be reconciled. God is working even when you cannot see it.
Just a word to those that are on the receiving end of a friend or loved one seeking reconciliation. Remember that it is not Christlike to be forgiven, it is Christlike to forgive. The Lord Jesus never sinned and never needed to be forgiven, but He forgave over and over and over.
My Dad gave me a safe place to be able to talk to him about times when I had sinned or made a mistake. When I was engaged to Paula I made a three hour long distance call during business hours. This was in the days of phone cards and the morning and afternoon were premium hours to call.
I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, “Man, that is going to be expensive. I’ve got to tell Dad and give him the money for it”. I was working at Radio Shack at the time in Chattanooga and had the cash to pay for it. Every weekend I came home and so it would be easy to care for. But I forgot.
A few weeks later I was sitting in Dad’s office and he was behind his desk and said, “Son, did you make a call to Dayton, Tennessee this past month for several hours?” “Oh, Dad, I did and I forgot to tell you! How much is it? I know it’s a lot and I just forgot to tell you”.
He said, “That’s alright, Rick. Just don’t do it again”. No lecture, no punishment. And I never did that again.
When your child makes a mistake and you become aware of it the first thing that comes out of your mouth to your child is what you value the most. It will either be them, your possessions they destroyed, or your reputation that took a hit. They may not process it at the time, but they will realize later on that you loved the car more than the fact that they were safe. Or they may recall that though you had done them wrong that you extended mercy and grace.
Those you have disappointed may take a while to welcome you back and, to be honest, may never get over it, but your Heavenly Father welcomes all that are broken over their sin and run to Him. After all, that is the true message about the prodigal son.
It’s really not about the rebellious son at all, but the kindness and mercy of our great God. If you are away from Him as you read this, run to Him – He is running toward you.